The Thing Around Your NeckChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Knopf · $24.95)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been called the artistic daughter of Chinua Achebe. Comparing the work of the 32-year-old MacArthur Genius to that of Achebe’s, the titan whose 1958 Things Fall Apart became the most widely read piece of African literature in history, is flattering but ultimately misleading. Rather, it reveals more about how little most of the West knows about African writing than any similarities between the two writers.
The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s third book and first short story collection, is comprised of 12 pieces focused on the lives of her fellow Nigerians, both at home and in the diaspora. Every story, on some level, is concerned with issues of class and ethnicity. And though Adichie—along with many of her characters—was born well after the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, the horror of that conflict is the backdrop for much of the action. Some stories deal with its legacy directly. In “Ghosts,” a professor runs into a former colleague whom he thought had died on the day the war broke. This chance meeting occurs in the midst of the professor’s attempt to negotiate an educational and political system that increasingly seems broken. We realize that for him, everything has been broken for 40 years.
Adichie’s prose is unflinching, eschewing metaphor for the simple power of calling a thing as it is. One of the strongest pieces, “Imitation,” follows a woman whose husband has installed her and their children in an American suburb, her only company the housegirl he has sent from Nigeria. As he spends most of his time in Africa, she bumps around the house, a wife to a voice on the phone. When he visits, her loneliness clouds her vision of not only her present but her past. “She tries to remember the married men she had dated. Had they ripe bellies like Obiora? She can’t recall. Suddenly, she can’t remember anything, can’t remember where her life has gone.”
The friction between Africa and the West, especially America (where Adichie has largely lived since the age of 17), permeates the book. The tension, though, isn’t political; it’s cultural. It’s the legacy of colonialism, artificial boundaries set to run through tribes. It’s evident in stories such as “Cell One,” where the class system modeled after Europe's has created a generation of elites who feel entitled to behave badly. The conflict is also one of desire, wanting the success and self-definition the West offers, yet needing to keep Nigeria close.
A few of the stories disappoint, reaching suddenly at the end for a kind of ultimate meaning—a temptation of the form. The best of the bunch are disquieting for their lack of resolution, ending on the inhale rather than the exhale.
Ultimately, The Thing Around Your Neck is less a tour of postcolonial scars than it is about humans who bang into each other on their way to getting what they want. In this way, Adichie follows in the footsteps of Jhumpa Lahiri as much as Achebe. These stories don't rock the genre, but they add to it an assured and insightful voice whose work can stand alone.